The benefits of blindness 11 Aug 2016
What do Germany, Bangladesh, Norway, Namibia, Poland, Myanmar and the UK have in common? How about this group: the UK, Liberia, Switzerland, Lithuania, Brazil, South Korea, Chile, Malta, Croatia, Mautitius, Nepal, the Marshall Islands, Saint Lucia, Granada, The Bahamas, Taiwan and Austria?
Are they potential trading blocs post-Brexit? No. Some list of Olympic achievements? Also topical, also wrong.
Two things stand out. The lists aren’t as short as they might have been 25 years ago (the last time the UK had a female PM). But given there are 193 (UN-member) states in the world, they are scandalously brief. If you don’t think it’s a problem that just 3.6% of governments are headed by someone drawn from a clearly identifiable group, with its own distinct perspectives, that makes up half of the electorate – well, you had better stop reading.
The other thing is their geographic spread. OK, Australasia is the continental exception (Julia Gillard was PM there until 2013) and we’d have to count the Caribbean as North America. But unless the US collectively loses its mind on November 8th, we’ll have another major state to add to the list. And the Aussies male politicians are so bad, maybe they'll give the Shielas another crack soon.
So any notion that there are no-go areas for women is nonsense. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Bhuddist; young or old; black or white. Being a woman is not a bar to high office. Which makes that 3.6% number all the more shocking.
So Theresa May emerged victorious from the Tory’s back-biting battle royale. The prize? The right to lead the UK into a back-biting battle royale with the EU. But what’s that got to do with the finance functions of growing businesses?
Simple: it’s all about talent. You need it, and consciously or unconsciously (whether you’re a man or a woman in the FD or FC post) most businesses are not seeing women rise in enough numbers to senior positions. You need a Theresa May; you’re getting a succession of Goves and Johnsons.
More than ten years ago, my old magazine Real Finance did a whole issue on women in the finance function. We found that women were around half of newly qualified accountants (a number up over the previous 20 years), but were dropping out; senior positions remained overwhelmingly male.
But according to research by BT and others, only a fraction were becoming home-makers. Many were ducking out of career patterns and workplaces defined by men and traditional male life choices to start up their own businesses; or work for companies that allowed them to apply their talent and ambition in more flexible ways. They weren't failures. They didn't lack energy, ambition or talent. They were just choosing not to be in a sexist environment.
More importantly, the kind of talent your business needs is changing. Continuing to draw from the usual, reliable pools of skills or training isn’t going to cut it – and that's going to be a problem sooner than you think. According to the World Economic Forum, by 2020 cognitive technologies (artificial intelligence, algorithmic analytics, all that stuff) will have destroyed 7.1 million jobs globally.
Admin and general office work is taking the big hit; finance and management actually see small increases. But that means you need to take a hard look at the finance function. Automation is creeping into more and more areas. (Aside: guess what? With current gender bias in careers, men will lose three jobs for every new one created by tech; women will lose five for every one gained.) Your finance function needs to adapt right now, and ensure there's a pipeline of people with the right skills to fill senior positions within five years.
You need all the skills
So the focus for recruitment and promotion in your team now must be creative thinking, influencing skills and communication. (And, perhaps, hardcore technology skills to nudge the smart machinery in the right directions.)
These are no longer “the soft skills you ought to have to make FD”. We’ve been saying that for ages, and actually they’re still pretty rare. No: within five years these will be essentials for finance execs. Within ten, according to some analysis I've seen by KPMG, they will be the only skills you need. Everything else – right down to drawing business insights from operational and financial data – will be automated.
Let’s not start down the road of “women have more empathy, they’re more creative than men.” (In many cases, right now, that’s true – but that’s mainly just the lingering boundaries of patriarchal, gendered child-rearing.) The plain fact is that if you look around the currently male-dominated ranks of senior finance execs, those skills are in short supply. Finance functions need to open up any relatively untapped human resources to see if they can find more of them. And the stats show than in senior management positions, women remain untapped.
Do the right thing: go blind
Because women being only 3.6% of the heads of government is not the only terrible stat. For example, women are just 13% of undergraduates studying computer sciences – and that number is actually falling.
People get excited about the effect of the Davies Review on female board representation. They’re boasting about a breakthrough that has seen women become a whole 9.6% of FTSE100 executive directors. There are still dozens of FTSE 250 companies with no female directors at all, let alone the 30% said to be the tipping point for a change in underlying groupthink.
Any idea that somehow we don’t live in a sexist society “because it’s 2016 not 1956, and we have a female PM, and I know a female partner at a Big 4 firm, and and and…” is just plain wrong.
Your businesses will benefit from a more diverse management team. Seriously, the numbers are compelling. Your finance function will be fitter for the future by having more women in it (and people from ethnic minorities, and people who grew up in poorer households – but those are another story altogether).
But if your only reason for finding and bringing on more women is that we live in a sexist society which has to be engineered to change – well, we’re not going to judge you for that.
And ideally? You’d go blind. Even if you’re a woman FD or FC, unconscious bias in the workplace is a powerful force. So start recruiting and promoting blind – no names on CVs, for example. It’s the right thing to do, it makes business sense and it’s an essential way to prepare for the future. The Theresa Mays of the world will always rise. We need to remove the blockages to more like her.